Great Russian music performed by a Russian orchestra – a sure-fire recipe for box office success and so it proved in Birmingham for this concert given by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor, Yuri Simonov. A warm reception greeted this orchestra, founded in 1951 initially as a radio orchestra that grew in stature as it began to perform with a host of distinguished soloists and conductors. Perhaps the greatest of all of their conductors was Kirill Kondrashin, who led the orchestra from 1960 to 1976.

© Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
© Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra

Like a good many Russian orchestras, it retains a distinctively Soviet sound albeit with some of the harder edges smoothed out slightly. The portentous opening to Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini featured an upbeat from a particularly full-throated double bass section, highly responsive to Simonov’s gestures. The conductor adopted a statuesque posture throughout Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem, somehow managing to summon terrifying blasts of sound in climactic moments with only discreet, staccato movements. In this respect, Dante’s Inferno was spectacularly and vividly conjured by Simonov and the orchestra.

Francesca herself was well-represented by a lovely clarinet cadenza, with the ensuing central section providing some much needed relief from the swirling vortices of sound, though hers is a melody laced with melancholy, as might be expected from this composer. The wind soloists of this orchestra were particularly fine, if not always possessing infallible intonation in some of the tutti sections. The brassy peroration featured a notably ‘narrow-bore’ sound and led to a terrifying climax.

Given the edge to this orchestra’s sound, I expected them to be ideally suited to Shostakovich’s gritty and percussive Cello Concerto no. 1. As it was, Natalie Clein's rather sprightly opening phrase was met with a rather flaccid accompaniment from the Moscow players. Perhaps it was Clein's slightly lightweight attack that failed to inspire the orchestra. There are certainly practical difficulties presented by this piece including ensuring the soloist projects Shostakovich’s often spiky music well enough into a large concert hall. I feel this could have been more satisfactorily addressed had Simonov reduced the size of the string section.

There was no doubting Clein’s intensity of engagement with the piece. Her ability to produce a sweet cantabile sound from her instrument paid dividends in the slow second movement and cadenza, where the emotional heart of the piece is to be found. Here the Moscow string players were more supportive with a cushion of sound in response to the soloist’s intensity. There was, however, a sense that Clein may not have sufficiently prepared the frenetic conclusion of the cadenza and, though the segue into the raucously grim, whirling finale was slick enough, there were some conspicuously untidy moments in the orchestra throughout this movement. The complexities of Shostakovich’s writing here make it far from the easiest music to bring off and there was palpable relief as the motto theme from the first movement returned to bring the piece to an emphatic close. I did not sense a great rapport between soloist and conductor and perhaps this explains some of the more unsettled aspects of the performance. Clein’s ideally judged encore was a short fragment from one of Britten’s cello suites, which the composer wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich.

No doubt the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra has played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor many hundreds of times throughout its history. They certainly played it with absolute conviction and assurance. I wonder if the desire to avoid obvious familiarity explained some of Simonov’s curious interpretative choices in this performance. The opening ‘fate’ fanfare began, unusually, with rather muffled-sounding horns before they gradually opened out into a more fulsome tone. They were soon joined by the gloriously raw sound of the entire Moscow brass section, punctuated by razor sharp percussion crashes. This opening movement featured some sublime playing from all departments. A fairly pedestrian coda slowly built up to a thrilling climax.

After a flowing and unfussy Andantino in modo di canzona, Simonov adopted a most puzzling tempo for the famous pizzicato Scherzo. It was so slow that it was hard to discern any capriciousness whatsoever in the music apart from Tchaikovsky’s well-observed accents that ripple from the basses upwards. The notoriously devilish piccolo flourishes in the central section sounded quite comfortable for a change at this tempo! I was rather hoping the reason for this tempo would become clear by the end of the movement but the only effect that was heightened by this approach was the jolt in the audience as the fourth movement crashed in. The finale was impressively dispatched and Simonov, more effectively than others, avoided any hint of episodism by not allowing the pauses between sections to linger. His penchant for orchestral special effects such as frequent unmarked cresendos, however, left me feeling that the sounds he could achieve with this highly disciplined orchestra were an end in themselves rather than a means for achieving a more coherent interpretation.